A Day of Ono and Aloha

I only just met the little haole women from Albuquerque, lately of Kona on the day of our arrival. She had rescued us from the airport when our car rental company actually didn’t have a car for us (apparently a common issue in Kona), greeting us with orchid leis, ice cold water, and the biggest smile west of the Farallon Islands. In minutes we became more than second cousins… be became life-long friends who had only just met. You know the cliché: it was like we’d known each other our whole lives.

When cousin Cindy swept us away from the hot asphalt of the car rental lot and delivered us to an oceanside beach bar with live music and humongous mai tais, she magically transported us from a tedious perfunctory travel chore to a tropical paradise. That is Cindy Coat’s superpower. She sees magic, spins magic through her art, and makes magic happen.

On this final day of our Big Island Adventure, cousin Cindy was ready for a north Kona excursion. She had packed her car with towels, water, snacks, and all we needed for surviving a grueling day of beaching, sightseeing, and joyriding. As a 23 year resident of Kona, Cindy knows all the secret places and all the tricks for getting into them.

We first hit ‘Ai’opio Beach, a gorgeous white sand crescent tucked into a lava rock cove on the north side of the Honokohau Harbor. But too crowded on this day, so onto stop number 2: Kaloko-Honokohau National Historic Park.

The beach there is beautiful, and would probably be a great place to serenely contemplate a sunset, one’s navel, or life in general. But Cindy already had the perfect soaking spot in mind: Kikaua Beach.

This is the billionaire’s beach, or so we have been told. There is limited parking at Kikaua, and we got the last spot (cousin Cindy claims to have the best parking karma on the island). We bobbed in the warmest salt water I’ve ever felt in Hawaii. Brian, who grew up in San Diego County, has a nano-scale seawater thermometers in every skin cell and proclaimed the ocean at Kikaua to be 83°F, or just about exactly the same as the air. We soaked and shared family gossip, laughed and basked in our wretched predicament. It was heavenly. And then, with a twinkle in her eye, Cindy announced that it was time for day-drinking!

She took us to Lava Lava Beach Club, built on stunning ‘Anaeho’omalu Bay, an almost-movie-location-perfect-beach-side restaurant & bar set in the coconut palms behind the bay. I had been here before, in 1975, when there was nothing here but palm trees and sand. This is the place where, now the stuff of family lore, my dad lost the car keys while snorkeling on the reef. But dad was the original MacGuyver, and he used a fish hook to cross circuit the ignition wires, hot-wiring the car. We made it home to our Hilo summer home safe and sound. In 2019, we enjoyed tropical cocktails and Mauna Kea-sized basket of delicious seasoned fries.

Our final beach tour stop was at lovely Hapuna, a state beach park that always draws a crowd and today was no exception. It is the largest stretch of white sand on the Big Island. On this beautiful afternoon, Haleakala on Maui was easily visible on the northern horizon.

Hapuna Beach

Cindy drove us up the Kohala coast highway, past heiaus and beach parks. The aridness of south Kohala suddenly turned to green as we approached Hawi. We had finally closed the loop of our 10 day road tour around this amazing mid-Pacific paradise – a word that seems too simplistic to encompass the diversity and complexity of this incredible island. Back in Kona, Cindy and her husband took us to a delicious farewell dinner at Quinn’s Almost by the Sea. The menu had many temptations, but this was our last meal. It had to be ono. And it was so very ono.

Thank you for following this Voyage con Osos! We will be departing for another adventure soon!

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Octopus, Donkey Balls, Ka Lae

We began the day with fresh coffee and mango cheesecake, providing us energy for an early morning snorkel at Kahalu’u beach park. We were rewarded for our intrepidity with new sightings, notably the juvenile yellow-tailed wrasse! Score! Then a short drive into Kailua-Kona to see my cousin Cindy Coats in her alter ego guise as the artist in residence at the Cindy Coats Gallery on Ali’i Drive. We fell in love with her Octopus and made arrangements to have a signed print sent home.

Octopus by Cindy Coats, Cindy Coats Gallery, Ali’i Drive, Kailua-Kona, Hawaii

Cindy sent us off to explore, and we found our way to Old Airport Beach for a bit of tide pooling! This beautiful beach is right next to town, yet is hardly used. We had it to ourselves – in the middle of Spring Break.

We steered the Jeep south, way south, as far south as one can drive in America. Our planned destination was South Point, Hawai’i, with stops along the way. First, we loaded up on Donkey Balls (chocolate covered macadamias) in Kainaliu. The young woman behind the register didn’t break a smile or even a twinkle to enter her eye when she inquired if we wanted “a ball sack? You know… a sack for your balls… so that they don’t get sweaty in your hands.” Folks, you can’t make this shit up. But dessert had to wait, and we charted a course for burgers at Annie’s, described by the proprietor as well as many reviews as the best burger on the island. The cheeseburger was excellent, but the tempura onion rings stole the show!

As we meandered down the south Kona coast a pilgrimage to Hawai’i’s last native fishing village lured us off the Belt Highway, and location for one of the Elvis-in-Hawaii movies of the early 1960s.

Miloli’i, in south Kona, is the genuine article. Hawaiian families have been living here for generations, undeterred by town-leveling storms and tsunamis and all manner of disasters. On a visit here in the early 1980s, Sabrina, Bret, and I pulled up to Miloli’i beach park and were approached by a kindly kahuna who implored me to help him save the little church. I asked how I could help, and was told that the chapel was in danger of catching on fire and burning. Upon closer inspection I observed that, yes indeed, there was smoke wafting up from the heavy layers of mango leaves surrounding the Hau’oli Ka Mana’o church. The thick layers of dry leaves were smoldering, and had likely combusted from super activated natural composting, the same basic biochemistry that makes grain silos explode. The old man beckoned me to assist his efforts to subdue the encroaching danger. He gestured to my shorts, then to the leaves, then nodded encouragingly. Oh! As understanding dawned, I dropped trou and relieved myself of that afternoon’s borrowed lager, onto the burning hummus. The earnest old man was very grateful and thanked me profusely – and I now I know that it must’ve worked… after all, the little church is still there… decades later.

Ka Lae, in the Kau District, on the Big Island of Hawai’i, is the southernmost point of land in the US of A. On this tradewind-swept bit of ancient lava the first human occupants, Marquesans from Nuku Hiva, arrived after a long sea voyage in a giant double canoe approx 1300 years ago. They were followed a few hundred years later by Polynesians from the Society Islands. But in this place you can almost imagine what Hawai’i was like before any human set foot on her shores.

The remoteness and beauty of this place seems to have a curious effect on the homo sapiens brain, or so an observer of human behavior might easily surmise. We watched a young couple that we code-named John and Ashley, posing for selfies on the wave-battered boulders of the south-most tip of land. Further and further out John, grinning moronically, progressed as waves crashed around him. He seemed oblivious to the forces of nature, uncaring or ignorant of being swept into the Pacific, while Ashley dutifully photo-documented her beau’s idiotic flirtation with Darwinism. Brian announced that we were leaving, and would not be waiting around to watch the grizzly end of this tragic romance.

A few minutes later we watched a young man leap (for fun!) from the high cliffs on the leeward side of the point – apparently not an uncommon feat of daring-do for locals. The plunge into the water didn’t look too terrifying, but the very thought of climbing back up the swaying rope ladder made me queasy.

We headed back to Keauhou Bay and our final night in our Kona condo home-away-from-home. En route we swung by the famous Punalu’u bakery in Na’alehu and picked up free samples, a cup of coffee, and a delicious loaf of sweet Hawaiian cinnamon swirl bread to present to cousin Cindy and husband Barry (who is reputed to love the stuff). Back in Kailua we enjoyed gin and tonics at Mask, and began thinking about dinner. Our bartender Morgan recommended El Maguey for good Mexican food. She didn’t steer us wrong. We fell asleep fast and hard with the sound of the ocean breaking on the rocky lava shore fifty feet away. We awoke briefly in the middle of the night to the sound of steady rain. There is no better lullaby than gentle surf accompanied by a tropical night rain with coqui frog accents.

Luau!

Because it was Hawaii, because we are foodie bears, and because Brian had never been to one, we had included a luau into our trip plans months before packing. The harder decision was which one? On the Big Island all the luaus are in Kona or south Kohala. I had been to a couple, but these bears wanted a feast that honored the luau’s Hawaiian food origins, and was set someplace exquisitely gorgeous. We chose the Luau at the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel.

The MKBH was the first destination resort developed on the South Kohala coast and is, to this day, unique among the areas big hotels. There is a perfect magic about this place that exudes from its tranquil beach at Kauna’oa Bay, its classic mid century architecture, and its spectacular pan Pacific art displays. You walk through these places en route to the lawn outside the luau staging area beneath the Ha’u trees.

After we were welcomed with shell leis and photographed against a background of the beach and bay, we were seated at a shared table with a California family on spring break. Their three adorable daughters were perfectly behaved, and mom and dad excellent at talking story, made even better with the lubrication of complimentary mai tais.

We filled our plates with all the usual luau favorites: kalua pig, imu roast turkey, fresh poke, chicken long rice, Hawaiian potato salad, and of course poi. We avoided the numerous bread offerings because why fill up on that when you have a whole roasted pig in front of you?!

We returned to our table to dive into the feast only to discover that our server, Lily, had delivered to us a couple of free piña coladas! Mahalo! She said that they were misordered by another couple, but we think she just liked us and was being aloha – and it was, after all, our belated honeymoon!

And then came the entertainment portion of the evening! There was hula with beautiful kane, there was hula with beautiful wahine, there was hula with adorable keiki, there was hula with embarrassed volunteers from the audience, and there were fire dancers!

The luau concluded with more fire dancing and much encouragement from the excellent matron of ceremonies. It was all wonderful. The fiery sunset ushered in the fast-arrival of darnkess, and with that nocturnal cloak wrapped around us, we left the luau grounds and wandered around the tiki torch-lit hotel grounds, down to the beach where we sank into a couple of lounge chairs, listened to the gentle lapping of the warm Pacific on the sand, and looked up at the brilliant Milky Way while we let our stomachs settle. In that place, in that moment, the cares of the world were erased, the trials of life unimportant, past and future would wait for tomorrow, and we basked together in our moment of perfect paradise.

Mauna Kea Beach Hotel sunset

As we wandered back through the hotel to call for our car, we promised each other that we would return.

From Heiau to Blessed Bean

After a day on the water and in the sun, it was time to dive back into trekking and broad brimmed hats. After a quick breakfast of coffee and tropical danish we climbed into the rental Jeep and made our way south to Napo’opo’o. Here on the south side of Kealakekua Bay — and the only part of the famous bay accessible by road — is sacred Heiau Hikiau. I noticed something absent from the informational displays adjacent to the heiau — any mention of Capt. Cook has been removed. Seems only fitting, given that the captain’s monument is plainly visible across the bay and hard to miss, even at a glance. The historic information at the Napo’opo’o site is purely Hawaiian in nature, and avoids dwelling on the Cook encounter.

From Napo’opo’o we drove south on the Pu’u Honua Road – a short jaunt to two great destinations: Pu’u Honua O Honaunau National Park and Two-Step Beach, known throughout the land as one of the island’s best reef snorkeling destinations. The road itself is narrow, about one and a half lanes wide, making each vehicular interaction an opportunity for aloha!

We drove up to the entrance kiosk of Pu’u Honua O Honaunau and proudly presented our annual National Parks Pass (recently renewed at Volcanoes). This place hasn’t changed in decades, and is still fascinating. Like so many places under the tropical sun, it is best visited early in the day. It can get warm. The Pu’u Honua (place of refuge) at Honaunau is a captivating peek into Hawaiian village life as it was before European contact. The self-guided tour around the park is excellent. With the towering palms, black lava rock, white shell sand, and brilliant blue Honaunau Bay, every moment is a photo op.

Panorama of the National Park at Pu’u Honua O Honaunau

Two-Step Beach, across Honaunau Bay from Pu’u Honua, is one of the best places to snorkel on the Kona Coast. We saw all of our favorite friends from humuhumunukunukuapua’a to schools of yellow tang-fish (as Brian came to call them), a few new ones, including a golden-yellow coronet fish and mating pairs of Moorish Idols. Our rental gear from Snorkel Bob didn’t seal around our bewhiskered mugs (even with vaseline) as well as the Hula Kai loaner masks, but we discovered by pressing the mask against your face with a free hand you could keep the water out.

It was time for a refreshment. The Coffee Shack in Honaunau provides a sweeping view of the coast from Kealakekua Bay south of the Pu’u Honua. We had iced coffee and a cookie – bears gotta keep up their strength!

From the Belt Road we turned makai (toward the sea) at Hookena Beach road and wound down through pasture land and scattered forest toward the lovely community and beach park at Hookena. It was along this winding route that I, being the youngest in our party in 1975, was elected to climb a papaya tree heavy laden with fruit. The effort ended with my falling ten feet to the ground and a side branch landing on my foot and breaking a toe. I couldn’t wear swim fins for weeks. I looked for that papaya tree as we drove down the rutty road, but the landscape has grown up a lot in 44 years and the tree went unfound.

The beach park at Hookena hasn’t changed much. It’s an idyllic south Kona setting, with shade trees behind the beach, outdoor showers, and a handful of campsites. A very tanned haole woman advised me to put apple cider vinegar on my sunburn to stop the deep burning and turn it into tan. She and I talked story for several minutes, and I learned how she has encountered sharks here at Hookena, but they were never interested in sampling her cider-preserved hide.

Panorama pic of the beach at Hookena.

As the day grew long we turned around to head north again and back to the condo to get cleaned up and turned out for the evenings festivities… but first, our bingo card had a box to fill. It was time to take a coffee tour! The easiest to find is Greenwell Farms, and their plantation tour is informative and fun. Lots of free samples, too. Their visitor center is just off the highway in Kealakekua. The excellent tour takes about 40 minutes and is free. By the end of it we were coffee snobs and shameless experts at growing the blessed bean.

A Three-Hour Tour…

Okay, so it was more like a five-hour tour… and the weather never started getting rough, nor was the tiny ship tossed in any way. Our morning sail on the Hula Kai out of Keauhou Bay was incredibly fun, the crew – buoyantly friendly and super professional. They work hard to take care of your every need. The skipper (yes, he actually bore an amusing resemblance to that skipper) steered us south along the Kona coast before tucking into Kealakekua Bay for a shipboard breakfast and an hour of snorkeling in this protected state natural sanctuary.

Kealakekua Bay is a nexus point in Hawaiian history, a place where so many threads are connected, but of course most famous for being the site where British explorer James Cook collided with fate. Its humbling to look up Kealakekua’s cliffs, pockmarked with pukas that, according to centuries-old rumor, hold the remains of ali’i, and even, the bits of Captain Cook that weren’t eaten or returned to his crew. On this morning Hula Kai held station straight out from the white obelisk of Cook’s monument while we donned snorkel and mask, and peered beneath the pristine waters of Kealakekua and let our eyes feast on a smorgasbord of Hawaiian reef fish.

I have swum on the reef adjoining the Cook monument a handful of times, and each time it is, for me, a place of contemplation, where two worlds collided fatefully and changed Hawaii forever. Protected and respected, it should stay like this forever, rising sea level notwithstanding.

Returning to port, we drove into Kailua town to do a bit of Hawaiian style urban exploration. We wandered out onto the public pier to take classic photos of the town bathed in late golden light. We went into the old Mokuaikaua church, first Christian church in the islands, built by early New England missionaries in the 1840s. James Michener used their story as the basis for part of his first epic chronicle Hawaii, published in 1959, though Michener moved the story to Lahaina (Maui) and changed the names to protect the innocent.

Driving back to the condo we pulled off to record our first Kona sunset.

Kona by Way of Petroglyphs

Wanting to make several stops en route to our next digs in Kona, we checked out of the Dolphin Bay Hotel early. We had our last cup of delicious coffee, last slice of fresh banana bread, last fresh papaya, said good-bye to the hotel cat, showered the office staff with compliments, and hit the road. Our plan was to take the southern Belt Road and make a return visit to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park to see one particular point of interest that had escaped our tour of the park earlier in the week.

The Pu’u Loa Petroglyphs were beckoning. Getting to the stone age graffiti meant a .7 mile hike over barren lava flow, just under a mile and a half roundtrip. We hoped to get an early start before the sun was too high in the sky. Lava flows make for warm hiking.

As we approached the end of the trail we observed that the trail, often marked by cairns alone, was pockmarked with carvings. At some point we had begun actually walking on the petroglyphs themselves, but the National Park Service must be aware of this. There are simply so many petroglyphs that it would be impractical to route the trail where there are none at Pu’u Loa… Long Hill. Once you start to see them, your eyes adjust, and you realize that they are everywhere in this place.

We picnicked on the pali overlooking the coastal plain we had just traversed, dining on an old Big Island lunch-on-the-go-favorite: Pilot crackers, red stripe bologna, American cheese, and brown mustard.

Our next stop en route to Kona was the black sand beach at Punalu’u. It is known to be a favorite for sea turtles. There were several frolicking in the surf, and a big ol’ mama resting on the beach, warming herself in the afternoon sun.

Thirst overcame us as the highway took us through the southernmost town in the US, and right up to the southernmost bar in the US, Shaka! Of course we had to stop and have an ice cold pint.

Following a late afternoon check-in at our Keauhou condo basecamp, we headed up the hill for a delightful evening at the lovely home of my cousin Cindy. They spoiled us with food, drink, and treats. Welcome to Kona!

Prosecco with hibiscus blossom

Hilo, HI 96720

It was our last day of Hilo side basecamp, on the eve of setting up our Kona explorations, when we elected to dedicate it to exploring Hilo itself. We began the day with a sunrise visit to Rainbow Falls, a gorgeous 60 foot drop in downtown Hilo, where the Wailuku River tumbles through a series of worn lava steps, just a few blocks from where it empties into Hilo Bay. This trip had renewed my lifelong affection for this wonderful little town-by-the-bay, and Brian was quite smitten. But where was the rain? As residents of Bellingham, Washington, we are keenly aware that Hilo, Hawaii is one of few US cities to beat us out for annual precipitation totals… but we had as yet hardly a passing cloud, let alone actual rain.

Next stop: the Hilo Farmers Market and craft fair, with a ham and cheese croissant washed down with fresh Kona coffee!

Our morning highlight was a visit to the Lyman House museum in downtown Hilo, and a wonderful room-by-room tour of the original missionary house. How odd western clothing, tools, livestock, and architecture must’ve looked to 1830’s Hiloeans.

It was high time for lunch, and Brian was drooling for poke. The guide book swore by a place I knew from the summer of ’75… Suisan Fish Market! And it was indeed excellent!

We spent the sunny afternoon exploring the beaches and inlets along the south side of coastal Hilo. Reed’s Bay, Keaukaha Beach Park, Onekahakaha Beach Park, and lovely Carlsmith to name a few. But it was warm, humid, and called for the one thing that can cool a body down rapidly…but be careful, or brain freeze could result.

Our final day in Hilo ended with a nap and a celebratory cocktail at Pineapple’s, in downtown. The drinks were great, the live music appropriate (as if Jack Johnson and Jimmy Buffett had a love child), and the open-to-the-street venue perfectly casual and funky for sleepy Hilo.

Pineapple’s in Hilo, Hawaii